(RNS) It's not just the future of the Catholic Church riding on the selection of the next pope.
More than 20,000 people have bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on the papal change and international bookmakers expect that dollar figure to quickly move into the millions.
Just two hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, Irish bookmaker Paddy Power was out with their odds and within 48 hours, they saw more than $200,000 in bets.
It's illegal to place bets on the pope in the United States -- even in Nevada -- because it's considered an election. Plenty of foreign bookmakers, however, are capitalizing on what they say could be the biggest moneymaker ever outside of sporting events.
"We are expecting this pope betting to be the biggest round of non-sporting betting in Paddy Power history -- it's a big market," says spokesman Rory Scott. "It's going to pick up as we head into conclave and we think it will reach about 7 million dollars."
Paddy Power offers betting on who will be the next pope, his age, his nationality, what his papal name will be, when the conclave will start, how long it will last, and even when the first foreign visit will take place.
Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana is the favorite with odds of 11-4.
"He is screeching ahead at the moment," Scott says. "But there is a saying, 'He that enters the conclave as pope leaves as cardinal.' "
Next in line:
- Cardinal Angelo Scola from Italy with odds of 3-1
- Cardinal Marc Ouellet from Canada with odds of 6-1
- Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone from Italy with odds of 6-1
- Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco from Italy with odds of 8-1
- Cardinal Leonardo Sandri from Argentina with odds of 12-1
Bad news for Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil: His 50-1 odds have drawn nine fewer bets than Father Dougal Maguire -- the fictional priest from Father Ted, an Irish sitcom.
The next papal name is the most popular alternative market, and the name Peter is the front-runner.
All of the betting fun -- legally -- has to take place abroad.
"It's not legal in the United States," says American Gaming Association spokeswoman Holly Wetzel. "Sports books in Nevada are not taking bets on the pope -- some cite the illegality of taking bets on elections, some say it's a matter of'taste.' "
It is also illegal for people within the United States to place bets with foreign Internet bookmakers, Wetzel says.
But that might not stop some small-time fun.
"Office pools are kind of a gray area that don't fall under regulations," Wetzel says. "Technically, in some states, it's illegal, but nobody goes after those kind of things. It varies by states, but it's legal as long as the person organizing it doesn't take a cut."
For no cash at all, the Religion News Service is offering the "Sweet Sistine," papal brackets with the top candidates from each continent. The online feature has already gotten more than 100,000 hits.
Papal-wagering is nothing new.
"There is a long history of betting on the pope," says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest in New York and an editor at America, the national Catholic magazine. "Unofficial betting has probably been going on since as long as there were conclaves."
Martin says that often the bookmaker's top candidates are in line with candidates mentioned by top Vaticanologists.
However, in 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's odds were 20-1, ranking him outside of the top 10, as he headed into the conclave from which he emerged as Pope Benedict XVI.
"I check Paddy Power every day just to see who is up and who is down," Martin says. "But the Holy Spirit is not checking Paddy Power and it is up to the Holy Spirit -- not the odds on Paddy Power."
(Natalie DiBlasio writes for USA Today)